Register rebellion

Service, service, service. Everyone is emphasizing customer service because it’s often the only differentiating factor in a world filled with commodities.

Advances in technology, distribution and manufacturing have made your product or service look a lot like your competitor’s. Prices can only be cut so low, so service is the only thing left.

The customer is always right, service with a smile, be consultative in your sales approach — these mantras sound great in the board room, but often are difficult to implement with a sometimes belligerent public. And one researcher says that trying to be pleasant to customers can affect your employees’ health.

“Service with a smile, especially when mandated by the company, may be pleasing to the customer, but at the same time, emotionally and physically stressful to the employee, especially if forced or insincere,” says Alicia Grandey, assistant professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Penn State University. “Many clerical and service jobs are already stressful, because they are low wage and low status, with employees having little or no control over their workplace conditions. Maintaining professionally positive expressions for the customer requires a kind of work termed ‘emotional labor’ by some psychologists.”

Emotional labor may create significant stress, which has mental and physical costs.

“Job stress does more than cause absenteeism, decreased productivity, fatigue and burnout,” says Grandey. “The physiological bottling up of emotions taxes the body over time by overworking the cardiovascular and nervous systems and weakening the immune system.”

Research has linked the inhibition of emotions to a variety of physical illnesses, including high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer. In fact, the inability to express negative emotion is one of the strongest predictors of cancer.

The American Heart Association estimates that cardiovascular disease cost the U.S. economy more than $130 billion in 1995. That figure includes health care, lost productivity and employee replacement costs.

“The dilemma is that employees are told to suppress or ignore their emotions in order to provide good customer service,” says Grandey. “Especially after a jarring experience with a rude or irate customer, the stress caused by suppressing natural response to this confrontation has costs for both the employee and the organization.”

The best support that supervisors can give beleaguered clerks, secretaries and other service employees is understanding. This means assuring them that they are not at the mercy of the abusive or manipulative customer, and that they have rights as well. Organizations can help by encouraging employees to take a brief walk or do deep breathing exercises or try internal self-talk that allows them s to reappraise a bad experience with a customer.

For example, employees can reframe their emotional response by reminding themselves of a positive emotion event. Employees should have the opportunity to consider that sometimes the customer is not right. All of this allows them to process and regulate emotions, rather than just hiding them.

These techniques can also prevent a domino effect, by which the negative emotional fallout from one customer outburst becomes contagious and affects the employee’s interaction with other customers.

“Companies need to be concerned about providing friendly customer service, but also recognize how this may tax their employees’ health,” says Grandey. “Both have an impact on the bottom line.”

Todd Shryock ([email protected]) is SBN’s special reports editor.